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U.S. census: Single women outnumber married

Amy Scott Jan 16, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Defenders of marriage might want to sit down for this next one: the New York Times reports today that more women are now living without a spouse than are living with one. Experts say that’s probably a first in recent history. And Marketplace’s Amy Scott reports the demographic shift could change how we think about everything from healthcare to the length of the school day.

AMY SCOTT: The Times looked at census data from 2005 and found that 51 percent of women said they lived without a spouse that year. In 1950, that number was 35 percent.

The reasons are familiar. Women are waiting longer to marry — they tend to survive longer as widows. But Stephen Mintz with the nonprofit Council on Contemporary Families calls that the Pollyanna theory.

STEPHEN MINTZ: Clearly a growing number of women, and to a certain extent a growing number of men, no longer are convinced that marriage is fulfilling their needs.

That means more single people are navigating a society that, in many ways, favors married couples. Mintz says consider the public school system. Class lets out at 3 p.m., but Mom and Dad work till 5 — if they’re lucky. Mintz says the schedule was built on the assumption that one parent was at home.

Another example is Social Security. Nancy Folbre teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She says married women can choose between collecting Social Security benefits based on their own earnings history, or their husband’s.

NANCY FOLBRE: What it ends up doing is kind of subsidizing wives that don’t work for pay, even if they’re married to a very high-earning spouse.

If the shift away from marriage continues, Folbre says policymakers will have to adapt. Perhaps by creating a universal healthcare system, since so many can no longer count on coverage through a spouse. Others say employers will have to adjust by offering flexible work schedules and paid family leave.

In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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